Strategic grouping replaces social distancing

How we distance ourselves 'strategically' matters, according to an Oxford University study looking at how to flatten the curve in a post-lockdown world. The report suggests 'social bubbles' and the move to strategic distancing as middle-ground between complete isolation and fully re-opening society. They say that the public are far more likely to be compliant with official recommendations and ‘keep the curve flat', in terms of COVID-19 infections with a more targeted approach.

Managing a post-lockdown world

Professor Melinda MillsThe team including Dr Per Block and Professor Melinda Mills (pictured) from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, in collaboration with researchers from Zurich, have carried out extensive modelling on the impact of loosening the lockdown on the course of the virus. They demonstrate that the infection rate can be kept considerably lower by strategically reducing contact, compared to simple social distancing in a post-lockdown world.

Mitigating the negative consequences of social isolation

Dr Block, lead author of the article states, "We demonstrate that strategic reduction of contact can strongly increase the efficiency of social distancing measures, introducing the possibility of allowing some social contact while keeping risks low. This approach provides nuanced insights to policy makers for effective social distancing which can mitigate negative consequences of social isolation."

He adds: "We demonstrate how simple changes within individuals’ social networks, and network-informed constellations within businesses and schools, can alter the rate and spread of the virus.

The Oxford study looks at three strategic options:

Homophily, repetition and social bubbles

  1. Increasing similarity of contacts (homophily), by temporarily restricting contact to those who share key similar features, such as living in the same neighbourhood, where possible.
  2. Reducing interaction with people who are not connected to one’s usual social contacts, in order to decrease ties that bridge social clusters.
  3. Repeatedly interacting with the same social contacts (repetition), by creating micro-communities, commonly referred to as social bubbles.

Each strategy offers the prospect of increased social contact, in a clearly defined way. The third strategy, of limiting interaction to a few repeated contacts, was the most effective strategy. Maintaining similarity across contacts, such as only interacting with people who live within the same neighbourhood, and decreasing ties that bridge social clusters, such as occasional acquaintances, were also found to be highly effective, when compared to reducing contact at random.

Reducing high-impact contact

Reducing high-impact contact, rather than reducing or removing it overall, can mitigate adverse social, behavioural and economic impacts of lockdown approaches while keeping risks low. By offering different social distancing strategies, the article also proposes alternatives to social bubbles in cases when forming these is not practicable.

Reducing the psychological harm of social distancing

All discussed approaches mitigate the recognised psychological and physical harms of prolonged social distancing. Recommendations to reduce contact strategically may be more palatable to people than complete isolation – and therefore lead to higher adherence. Translating the simulation results to understand how alteration of social networks can reduce infections, the authors show how enacting the three strategies ‘flattened the curve’ across a wide variation in simulated scenarios.

Strategic contact reduction

Strategic contact reduction has a substantive effect on flattening the curve compared to simple social distancing consistently across all scenarios. Since most individuals in a post-lockdown world need to interact across multiple social circles (e.g., workplace, extended family), employing only one strategy might not be practical.

Safer contact patterns across multiple domains

In conclusion study states, ‘We provide clear social network-based strategies to empower individuals and organisations to adopt safer contact patterns across multiple domains by enabling individuals to differentiate between ‘high-impact’ and ‘low-impact’ contacts.

Instead of blanket self-isolation policies, the emphasis on similar, community-based, and repetitive contacts is both easy to understand and implement thus making distancing measures more palatable over longer periods of time.

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